Poverty Awareness Month – What are causes of poverty and homelessness?

“Gateway Mission recognizes that poverty is significantly more complex than just a roof over someone’s head.”

Anyone can fall into poverty through oppression, injustice, addictions, natural disasters, a traumatic past, a lack of skills, or generational learned helplessness. Some folks need to reconnect with loved-ones, others need help with financial planning and management. There is no one-size-fits all solution. Personalized solutions are essential to walking alongside our hurting friends and neighbors.

Quick review of the common approaches to homelessness shows a wide variety of responses from disdain and avoidance to enabling compassion which encourages continued unhealthy behaviors. Many people in the United States feel that the homeless are lazy and need to “pull up their bootstraps” and get to work. There is no doubt that this is true for some of the homeless. Others seek to avoid the homeless at all costs. They do not want them to be visible and demand that they not panhandle nor live outside near their business or home. However, others want to do the right thing, express misguided compassion and provide funds to the homeless who ask and unknowingly enable poor behaviors such as substance abuse. 

Both social agencies and ministries have provided an abundance of programs for the homeless including addiction recovery programs, work readiness programs, and housing stability programs. Many churches and ministries focus on street outreach and compassionately provide food, blankets, clothing and tents to the homeless. Sadly, many of these outreach activities (certainly not all) are “drive-by” feel-good-ministries that do not engage with the hidden needs of the homeless. However, homelessness has only increased even more after decades and billions of dollars. The problem of homelessness is significantly deeper than just these visible needs. While it is often much easier to understand visible poverty, invisible poverty is often complex and not straight forward. For most homeless on the streets, particularly chronically homeless ones, invisible poverty puts some in a horrific valley of lonely torment. 

                                                                                                                                               Visible Poverty

This invisible poverty is more profound than basic needs and involves a spiritual void. This deep void of pain is often exasperated by abandonment or loss, which leads to a spiritual and relational wasteland. This wasteland is a hard life characterized by loneliness, hopelessness, and frustration. Both the visible and invisible forms of poverty are deeply intertwined. However, if the invisible poverty in a person’s life is not resolved, the hope of really solving the visible poverty is meager. People certainly do not plan to become homeless. They come out of desperation to fill their visible poverty of basic needs. Examples of visible poverty are:

  • Housing/Shelter
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Hygiene Items
  • Transportation
  • Childcare
  • Communication (Telephone/Internet)
  • Health Care
  • Employment

Most government and social programs seek to meet these basic needs. These government resources are a helpful safety net but should not become a lifestyle. This visible poverty is the easiest to alleviate; however, this is not the real poverty to be solved. A person’s visible poverty only shows a part of their story and keeps hidden their actual needs of invisible poverty. 

“Visible poverty is the easiest to alleviate as it consists of basic needs like shelter and food but may not meet their true needs. Therefore, we must recognize that many people’s needs are much deeper.”

                                                                                                                                               Invisible Poverty

Those seeking to help the homeless must consider a person’s actual poverty level, visible and invisible poverty. Invisible poverty is more profound than visible poverty, and it is so stealth that even those deep within it do not realize it’s confinement. True poverty is similar to an iceberg; visible poverty is above the waterline, and invisible poverty is below the waterline where much is going on. People come with a perceived need, often only wanting to address the visible poverty while ignoring their actual needs of invisible poverty. Often, we fall into this same trap and view poverty as lacking these basic needs and ignore the underlying issues. It is undoubtedly easier to relieve a person’s pain than to deal with the cause of the pain.

“A person’s visible poverty only shows a part of their story and may hide their actual invisible poverty needs. Therefore, we must take time to listen to and understand their individual stories.”

Although every person is unique, the invisible poverty of the homeless often includes: 

Poverty of Relationships

  • Lack of a safety net in caring relationships and healthy friendships.

Poverty of Truth

  • Lack of believing reality
  • Often results in addiction and distrust/dear of others (abuse)

Poverty of Identity

  • Lack of belonging, value, and acceptance
  • Leads to lack of self-worth, purpose and dignity

Poverty of Hope

  • Lack of believing believing the future will be any better
  • Leads to guilt, discouragement, and despair. 

These invisible aspects of poverty often are interrelated and feed each other, most notably the visible poverty. As stated previously, people seeking to have their visible basic needs met do not even realize that they are suffering from invisible poverty. The causes of invisible poverty are diverse. Most causes are rooted in sin and include childhood traumas, violence, generational poverty, family disintegration, death, incarceration, medical conditions, unresolved relationship issues, and even military service. 

The hope of the Gospel is real, and it overcomes the invisible poverty of hope, identity, truth, and relationships head-on. The hope of the Gospel undeniably fills every need of invisible poverty behind homelessness. The hope of the Gospel is the only real solution to our most profound problems. In the book When Helping Hurts the authors write, “The curse is cosmic in scope, bringing decay, brokenness, and death to every speck of the universe. But as King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus is making all things new! This is the good news of the Gospel.” The hope of the Gospel is Jesus Christ. The Gospel brings hope, identity, relationships, and truth, and it is the only thing that can overcome invisible poverty. The Gospel alone brings Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-empowered inner transformation that leads to long-lasting positive life change.

“I finally realized that I had to renew my mind and think the way God wants me to think. I wanted to learn more about how to apply practically to my life, how to solve problems and really built a community this time. I need people, I can’t do it alone.” Roger, Gateway Addictions and Discipleship Program Graduate


Steve Corbett et al., When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 32 

Dr. Scott Klingberg – Interim Director of Ministry Operations, Gateway Mission”